Against Epistocracy: Why ‘Rule of the Informed’ Will Not Fix Democracy, Pt. II

This is second part of a two-part essay on “epistocracy,” defined by political philosopher and Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan as a system where the most politically-informed citizens have the most voting power. You can read the first part here.

There’s a lot of evidence that the United States isn’t nearly as democratic as it likes to think it is. Of course, the United States isn’t a direct democracy—no country is, and it would only be practical in a country where everyone voted like Vulcans—but a representative democracy, in which voters elect politicians to make decisions in their electorate’s interest. In that way, representative democracy sounds like a fusion of direct democracy and epistocracy, where voters determine the course of politics up until a certain point before their representatives—the “informed” ones—make the larger policy decisions. Of course, these representatives may make decisions in the interests of a few wealthy benefactors—communications companies, financial services companies, pharmaceutical companies—consolidating power in the hands of those rich enough to pay for it. Especially after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that corporations can spend unlimited sums on “electioneering communications,” it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to call the United States an oligarchy. (The sociologist Robert Michels once called the replacement of democracy—particularly applicable to representative democracy—by oligarchy the “iron law of oligarchy.” Michels, curiously, would later abandon his social-democratic political leanings and embrace Italian Fascism.)

If this sounds like I’m painting a rather damning portrait of American democracy, it’s because I am, and I’ll go a step further in arguing that the United States is in the state it’s in now precisely because it has always been, to some degree, an epistocracy. The Founding Fathers did not trust the common man to act in the fledgling nation’s best interests, and thus were skeptical of direct democracy. To prevent the common man from making a disastrous and uninformed decision that would cripple the country, the Founding Fathers put up a series of barriers to safeguard the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. It’s why voters don’t have any input on federal judges, who are appointed by the president and can remain in their position for life. It’s why, until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures and not their constituents. And it’s why we have an electoral college, the most epistocratic institution of all. This is how it’s always been in America, and now more than ever are we feeling the effects of our founders’ deep mistrust.

Now, having an epistocratic legislative body such as Congress makes sense. The average voter likely isn’t sufficiently informed about national issues such as government spending or trade policies to make a decision on them, so it would be better for them to appoint a representative to vote on their behalf. (That is, when the representative votes on behalf of their constituents and not their donors.) But there are certain issues that could be better decided if the public was able to make their opinion known with a national vote, as opposed to Congress or the Supreme Court deciding without public input. (More on this later.) Nevertheless, the Senate became more democratic—a good thing, I would argue—with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, which established direct election of senators.

Which is why it’s baffling that the American people still do not directly elect their president. To prevent the common man from doing just that, the Founding Fathers created the electoral college. One of the authors of The Federalist Papers—supposedly Alexander Hamilton—made the following argument in Federalist No. 68:

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station […] The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite moral qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit […] to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

Reading it now, Federalist No. 68 looks like an explicit argument for epistocracy in the form of the electoral college. Hamilton worried that an unqualified candidate could potentially win the presidency on popularity alone, so he proposed a smaller, more deliberative body that would be better suited to choose who should be president. How ironic, then, that in trying to ensure that the United States would have a qualified, competent president, Hamilton gave it its most unqualified and incompetent one.

More so than any of his predecessors, Donald Trump draws both visceral hatred and cultish adoration, but his popularity on the right is unmistakable. (Compare that to Hillary Clinton, who seemingly had as many #IGuessI’mWithHer voters as she did enthusiastic supporters.) It’s what allowed him to upstage establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. But it still wasn’t enough to win him the election, losing the popular vote by nearly three million. Trump won the presidency not despite, but because of the very deliberative body that was meant to keep him from it. Three hundred and four electors—elected officials, party leaders—overruled millions of voters who preferred Clinton, putting Trump in the White House. I don’t know if I can think of anything more antidemocratic than that.

So, Brennan’s ideas aren’t new. The Founding Fathers envisioned the United States as an epistocracy from the very beginning—ostensibly a democracy, but run by an elite, “informed” tier of voters. And it’s become apparent that epistocracy is not in the best interests of the American people; if the goal of epistocracy is for the best government to be elected by the most-informed voters, it has clearly failed in that front. The electoral college has bucked the popular vote twice in as many decades, resulting in two presidents who are among the most unpopular—or, less charitably, worst—in the country’s history. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, epistocracy isn’t the solution to the problem. It’s the problem, and to make the United States more epistocratic will only make things worse by disenfranchising more people in already-marginalized groups, creating an electorate that is less representative of the population. This wouldn’t incentivize people to become informed voters; if anything, it would incentivize those in power to make voting less accessible than it already is.

Now, none of this essay has addressed the raison d’être behind Brennan’s argument: Uninformed voters cripple democracy, so how do you get voters to become more informed? To be honest, there’s no easy answer. So it goes for horses and water: You can lead a voter to the ballot box, but you can’t make them think. I have a few proposed solutions, some of them simpler. Eliminating the electoral college entirely is one of the simpler solutions. Without it, you’ll see the end of swing states, which will likely increase voter turnout in what used to be safe states; Republicans in coastal states and Democrats in Southern states will have greater incentive to get out and vote now that the popular vote determines the winner. (This also increases the incentive for Southern Republicans to suppress the votes of minorities, now that they’re not winner-take-all situations.)

Another option is to make political education a requirement in high schools, so students can have a better understanding of the government’s functions and how they will be affected by them—and in turn, the effect that their vote can have on the government. Perhaps the key to engaging young voters—historically, voter turnout is lowest among 18-to-29-year-olds—lies with informing them. And while this has less to do with dismantling epistocracy than increasing incentive to vote, this is an argument I can’t make enough times: voting needs to be made more accessible, if not easier. Not everyone can take time out on a Tuesday to go to a polling place, so let voters mail in their ballots, or make Election Day a holiday—or better yet, extend it over a period of several days. Give people more time to vote, and you’ll likely find that more people vote.

One of the more contentious ways to fix democracy would be to introduce more opportunities for people to actually engage in democracy at the federal level. Often, political decisions feel like they are made without regard for the people who are most affected by them; this can breed resentment and detachment among voters. Legislative opinion on some issues could be shaped by national referendums or initiatives that receive a certain amount of public support. A majority of Americans support government-ensured health care and abortion, so the legislature and the judiciary ought to work out a solution for these issues that meets public opinion rather than defies it. And speaking of the judiciary, perhaps the public should have a say on the confirmation of federal judges; with the executive branch appointing judges and the legislative branch confirming them, the public has no input on who interprets the laws that affect them at a federal level. Perhaps the public would vote to confirm a judge—nationally for a Supreme Court justice, regionally for a district judge—after they have been approved by the Senate. Perhaps the president appoints a number of judges, some of whom are confirmed by the Senate before going to the public for a final vote. (If judges were confirmed in this fashion, it is possible that Brett Kavanaugh would have been rejected by voters.)

None of these suggestions will fix democracy on their own, and none of them are foolproof. Dismantling the electoral college will likely require an act of Congress, and with both houses under Republican control, plus a Republican president who owes his victory to it, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Education is already woefully underfunded as it is; very few teachers would be willing to set aside the time to educate their students about the importance of voting, and very few schools would be willing to set aside the money to hire a teacher just for that purpose.

Critics of increased participation will argue that too much democracy creates a new set of problems. National referendums sound like a good idea in theory, but they’d be incredibly messy in practice, for several reasons: the critical mass for an issue to be put to a vote would have to be high enough to shut down any trivial matters (i.e. building a Death Star), but not so high as to render the enterprise pointless; there would have to be a body (perhaps the Senate) that would approve and possibly even debate these issues before they went to a vote; certain issues would likely be off-limits; the whole notion would never be approved by voters who believe that states’ rights trump exclusive federal powers, and might even clash with the Tenth Amendment. (Not to mention, Brexit was a referendum. People are capable of making terrible—and uninformed—decisions on their own.) Allowing the public to vote on federal judges would make a long, drawn-out process even longer and more drawn out, and the voters will likely be as bitterly divided along partisan lines as the Senate.

There’s no doubt that democracy can be, and needs to be, improved. By several metrics—Congressional approval ratings, presidential approval ratings—Americans are deeply, deeply dissatisfied with the way things are in their country, and have been for some time. They’re distrustful of their fellow Americans and distrustful of the people who they’ve voted into office. Worst of all, they’re disaffected, disengaged and disinterested, not critically thinking about the way they’re voting or not voting altogether. The United States can’t pride itself on being a democracy if it refuses to do what needs to be done to make it more engaging and more receptive to its people. It can’t do that if it decides that epistocracy is the solution to its problems.


Jacob Nierenberg

Photo: Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution, Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856

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